Democracy: A Retail, Not Wholesale, Endeavor

Democracy: A Retail, Not Wholesale, Endeavor

With the first two official presidential nomination events under our collective belts, it may be time to step back . . . at least for those of us who are not candidates nor major players in any of the multitude of candidates’ campaigns.

I try here to be aggressively neutral about candidates and parties. That can be a challenge, of course. Anyone who spends his or her time dealing with policy and politics develops opinions. And some of us develop STRONG opinions, which adds to the challenge.

So I’m going to steer away from candidates and talk about the public and about the decisions we make about voting.

Let’s start with an interesting fact. Based on exit poll data, Senator Sanders secured a higher percentage of the women’s vote in the Democratic primary in New Hampshire than Secretary Clinton did. For those who looked for the campaign between these two to be defined in part in simple gender terms (women will support Hillary, men will support Bernie), this is a shock . . . as it may well have been for some Clinton strategists.

In a similarly surprising outcome for some, it was 69-year-old Donald Trump who took the largest percentage of the votes of under-30 voters in the Republican primary, not the much more youthful and youthful-looking 44-year-old Senator Rubio or 45-year-old Senator Cruz. In fact, Trump won the 18-29 year-old vote by a bigger margin than in any other age group.
It is easy to get trapped into thinking that people vote for people who are “like them” demographically. Certainly there is evidence that some demographic traits will matter with some voters. But voters’ decisions often involve more complex calculations.

Voters care about what candidates say and about what they have done. This is particularly true when the subject of the words or actions is important to the individual voter. It is even more important when the words or actions either reinforce or starkly contradict an impression the candidate has been trying to create.

In short, the more a candidate becomes known, the less simple demographic markers matter.
This may be the only virtue of beginning the presidential selection process with Iowa and New Hampshire. They are relatively small in population (Iowa ranks 30th, New Hampshire 42nd) and have a decidedly small-town character (between them, they have only three cities with populations over 100,000, and only Des Moines tops 200,000). These factors make them places where nationally prominent candidates actually can be encountered by a significant percentage (though still a minority) of voters. For many Iowa caucus-goers and New Hampshire primary voters, their impressions of at least some candidates are formed in part from personal encounters or conversations with friends who have had personal encounters.
Contrast that with the outsize role expensive media campaigns typically play in Florida and elsewhere (Remember what Mitt Romney did to Newt Gingrich in 2012?). Packaged or pounded by slick or sinister ads, what we learn about the candidates here often is just a distorted, sound-bite-size impression of a much more complex whole.

There are, of course, huge problems with Iowa and New Hampshire as early decision points. Their populations are not at all representative of either party nationally. Nor is there any guarantee that what their voters find attractive in their personal encounters with candidates (as well as what they “learn” from the saturation bombardment that also occurs on their airwaves) will foster the selection of the best and brightest to lead this land of ours.

Still, the retail part . . . there is something to be said for that. We can make better decisions when we can get to know the individual candidates, not just a shortlist of party, demography, or soundbites.

Hoping the American people generally could somehow get to know the presidential candidates (even just the two major party nominees) is probably a pipedream. But the aspirational goal is worthy and can be applied to other levels of government and other offices.

Everything we can do to diminish the importance of the media blitz, everything we can do to increase the importance of retail contact between candidates and voters is worth doing. Whether that’s evaluating the number, size and composition of districts, or the scheduling of elections, we ought to consider the effect of our choices on the prospects for voters to be able to take a more personal measure of the candidates at least as much as we consider the convenience of candidates or government offices or the costs of administration.

Because the cost of democracy is worth the price. And democracy, at its best, isn’t a wholesale endeavor.